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The Koningsdam, the final ship of the Vancouver cruise season, docked at the Canada Place cruise terminal. Photo: The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

People are taking cruises to Vancouver in record numbers, and our ocean is paying the price

As the Vancouver cruise industry celebrates a record season, environmental groups are concerned what more ships off B.C.’s coast could mean for water pollution.

By Sandrine Jacquot , in City , on November 20, 2023

Editor’s Note: This story was previously published in The Georgia Straight

Amid all-time-high numbers of cruise ship vacations, environmental groups say Canada needs to do more to regulate the industry’s environmental impact on our waters.

A recent Statistics Canada report found that cruise trips in August 2023 increased by 61.4 per cent—nearly two-thirds—compared to August 2019.

These numbers reflect a record-breaking year for cruises at the Port of Vancouver, where an estimated 1.25 million passengers (a 54 per cent increase from 2022) came in from around the world.

Environmental groups like Stand.earth are concerned about what more cruise trips could mean for pollution in Canadian oceans.

“Travel by cruise ship is the most greenhouse-gas-intensive way to travel available to the mass commercial market,” says Anna Barford, a Canada shipping campaigner for Stand.earth.

Travelling by cruise emits more carbon dioxide per passenger and per kilometre than flying. And according to a Friends of the Earth US study, taking a cruise vacation is eight times more carbon-intensive than going on a land-based trip.

One reason for the increase in cruise travel, suggests Tammie Tompkins, an Expedia Cruises franchise owner in Vancouver, is that more Canadians are doing post-pandemic bucket-list trips.

“[People] realized life can be short. Anything can happen,” she explains. According to her, the cruise industry has “come back with vengeance.”

Barford says more splurge cruise vacations means ships are coming more often, and in bigger numbers—which can equal billions of litres of wastewater being dumped along the BC coast. Wastewater includes sewage and grey water, but the majority of it actually comes from scrubbers: cleaning systems that use water to wash out pollutants with high sulfur contents from the ship’s exhaust, allowing them to burn dirty or heavy fuel.

“What they do is take that air pollution,” Barford says, “and turn it straight into water pollution.”

When it comes to regulating the industry, the Canadian government falls short—especially when compared to its American counterpart.

“There are plenty of examples literally from across the Salish Sea in Washington where there’s a no-discharge zone for sewage,” Barford says. “Any sewage, treated or otherwise, from a vessel cannot be released up to the Canadian border by any ship of any size.”

These significantly stricter regulations hold mega cruise companies accountable for covering up illegal discharge of oily waste.

In June 2023, Transport Canada passed a temporary order prohibiting cruise ships from the discharging sewage and greywater in Canadian oceans. But since the order excludes scrubbers, Barford explains, it fails to prevent over 90 per cent of the wastewater from entering our waterways.

Transport Canada says the interim order is a “first step,” adding they will continue to issue orders annually while working to make sewage and greywater measures permanent in an amendment to the 2012 Vessel Pollution and Dangerous Chemicals Regulations. On the matter of scrubbers, Transport Canada says in an email that future work includes figuring out a path forward to address washwater discharge after engaging with “industry and other interested partners.”

Local jurisdictions are regulating where they can. According to a spokesperson for the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, the organization has banned the discharge of wastewater, including from scrubbers, while ships are at berth or at anchor in the Port of Vancouver.

With the Transport Canada order set to expire next June—during a season many are predicting to be even busier than 2023—Barford is looking for Canada to align its rules with the United States.

“Until we address that in a permanent way,” she says, “BC is still going to be a toilet bowl. And that’s a policy choice.”

Of course, cruise ships are an important part of the economy—so it’s not about elimination, but rather about regulation.

“It’s something we need to figure out how to do right,” Barford says. “There’s a lot of work to do, but it can absolutely be done.”